It was like walking onto the set of an early 1900s kitchen sink drama. There was rickety old wooden furniture scattered about, mismatched chairs of every shape and hue, and dozens of aged candles providing the only illumination. I half expected a wizened old lady, struggling under the weight of a black shawl, to come bustling over to me, imploring me to have a sup of whiskey and take the weight off my feet. Instead I was saluted by a hipster in a Daft Punk t-shirt who called me ‘mate’ and handed me a menu and a list of craft beers available on tap.
I was not in a J.M. Synge play, but one of a growing number of trendy city centre restaurants and bars that seem to buying into ‘shabby chic’, as it’s termed by so-called style gurus and designers. The problem is the contradiction: how can something be elegantly fashionable and yet also shabby? The simple answer is it can’t. I’ve come up with my own term, ‘Granny’s cottage chic’, because the furnishings and style of these places remind me so much of my grandmother’s cottage. The only difference is she did actually live through the relevant era and her choice of fixtures and fittings were influenced by economic factors and not by the latest issue of Cool Cafe Interiors magazine.
More importantly, my grandmother’s home did not resemble the inside of a skip. Some of these ‘new’ establishments opening up look like they’re having a laugh at our expense. Is there an actual warehouse that sells distressed, uncomfortable furniture or do you literally go to the nearest dump or skip and fish out whatever odds and ends you like? I saw one particular sofa in a cafe-bar which had patches of foam and wood exposed where the upholstery was ripped. I’m sure I spied a mouse, or possibly a stoat, sticking its head out from underneath it, but the place was so dimly-lit I can’t be fully certain.
Although I don’t want to spook anyone, I can’t help thinking that it’s highly likely a person died in one of the old armchairs you find in these places. They have that look, and sometimes smell, about them: musty and careworn, like an heirloom. Last Sunday evening I had an eerie feeling that I was sitting on someone, although it turned out I’d actually sat on a member of the staff. It was so dark I didn’t see him.
I’m all for recycling but going for a meal or a drink with friends, and paying money for the privilege, is something that should be rewarded with a modicum of comfort. I passed by a cafe last week which had outside seating. The seats were the old primary school chairs we used to sit on; the ‘big’ ones that you’d enjoy only when you reached sixth class. Yes, school chairs. I’m surprised they weren’t all lined up in a row facing the bar. I wonder do you have to put up your hand and ask the barman for permission to go to the toilet. On that subject, I dread to think what the lavatory experience must be like: a hole in the floor of a concrete outhouse behind the building?
Tin seems to be ‘in’, with dented mugs and plates all the rage. While it was certainly en vogue back in the trenches during World War One, I really don’t think we’re in the same set of circumstances. Tin is very practical when you’re being shelled during subzero temperatures and pitch darkness in a flooded muddy hellhole. But I’d rather have my coffee in a ceramic mug if that’s okay. Do we really need to re-create scenes from All Quiet On The Western Front?
The final straw was a restaurant that attempted to serve me a drink in a jam jar. I got up and walked out. I’d like my jam served in a jam jar, and maybe marmalade, but definitely not beer. There’s nothing cool, trendy, retro, hip or cute about serving booze in a jam jar: it’s just stupid. What’s next, serving pasta in an old army boot? Tiramisu in a coal scuttle?
If this harking back to simpler times is followed to its logical conclusion it won’t be long before you find yourself in a restaurant whereby you’ve to chase, kill and skin your main course, and then dine in an unfurnished cave in the dark. The dress code will be strictly animal pelt, and nothing else. Although the ‘no fuss’ aspect of dining this way appeals to me, I think I’d expect a bit more value for money on a night out. And definitely no jam jars.